Toronto woman set on fire: Violence against women and girls should be treated as a hate crime

·5 min read
<span class="caption">A Toronto woman was set on fire on a TTC bus: police say they are investigating it as a hate-crime. </span> <span class="attribution"><a class="link " href="https://www.tps.ca/media-centre/news-releases/53433/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:(Toronto Police Service)">(Toronto Police Service)</a></span>
A Toronto woman was set on fire on a TTC bus: police say they are investigating it as a hate-crime. (Toronto Police Service)

Last week, a young woman died as a result of severe burns after a man poured a flammable liquid on her and then set fire to her while she was on a bus in Toronto in June.

Police are investigating the homicide as a “hate-motivated” act; it is not yet known what police think was the motivation.

Given the victim was a woman, it has prompted many to ask: Why is violence against women not treated as a hate crime?

This question is long overdue and has now been taken on by British Columbia’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner inquiry into hate in the pandemic. This is the first such inquiry in Canada, and one of few globally, to include a focus on gender-based violence as a form of hate.

In Canada, the definition of a hate crime has evolved out of related Criminal Code sections, identifying “sex” as an identifiable group. The Canadian Human Rights Act also includes “sex” among a list of identifiable groups protected from discrimination. For decades, then, it has been possible to respond to violence against women and girls as a form of hate on the basis of “sex.”

So how often does this actually occur?

Data gap in sex-motivated hate crimes

Police-reported statistics from 2006-20 show that sex never comprises more than three per cent of reported hate crimes. One study focusing on 2014 compared police figures to self-reported data to show that sex-motivated hate crimes were significantly under-reported: under three per cent compared to 22 per cent.

It is likely many cases were motivated by the intersections of sex and characteristics like race and religion, but data are limited in the ability to capture these combinations — a significant gap which is increasingly acknowledged.

Power and control does not negate hate

One common argument for the invisibility of sex-motivated hate is that violence against women and girls is more often seen as motivated by a man’s desire for power and control, since women and girls are most often (58 per cent) victimized by male partners and family members.

But the presence of power and control as a motivation for male violence does not preclude the accompanying motivation of hate. In fact, hate may be the primary motivation for efforts to exercise power and control over a woman.

A large proportion of women and girls are also victimized by men with whom they shared more distant or no relationship, or simply said they did not want to have a relationship.

The Toronto woman who was burned alive did not know her killer.

A mother and daughter who were killed last month, and a second daughter who was injured in Ottawa, did not share a relationship with the accused male perpetrator. He allegedly had “romantic interests” in the surviving daughter. Days before the attack, he had been released after being charged with stalking and sexual assault of unrelated women.

Sex-motivated hate crimes are common

One might argue these examples are anomalies, perpetrated by men with mental health issues. This is a common perpetrator-excusing rationale.

This perception must change.

Although the past month was full of tragedies for these women and their loved ones, three separate processes were also underway to help us move towards a better understanding and develop better responses to hate-motivated killings of women.

The Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario held a three-week inquest into one of the worst instances of intimate partner femicide in Canadian history. The case involved the killings of three women by one man in 2015. The inquest made 86 recommendations on femicide and gender-based violence. When sentencing the man to life in prison, the judge said: “… he is a violent vindictive, calculating abuser of women, who … took his hatred to its ultimate climax …”

The convicted male offender in the “Toronto Van Attack” was also sentenced for killing eight women and two men and injuring 16 others in 2018. He has said he drew his inspiration from the so-called incel online subculture of men united by sexual frustration and a hatred of women.

Read more: Incels are surprisingly diverse but united by hate

And the Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission is currently examining the events leading up to, and surrounding, the killings of 13 women and nine men in April 2020. Finally killed by police, the man’s killing spree began with violence against his female partner, which was reportedly not the first instance of violence against her. Connections are being examined between gender-based violence and mass killings, including the role of misogyny, roughly defined as the hatred of women.

Mass killings are not the only types of incidents involving the hatred of women and girls, however.

Everyday experiences of hate

According to the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability one women or girl is killed every other day in Canada, a significant portion of which are likely motivated by hatred. We lack reliable data to understand its actual occurrence.

The inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls demonstrates how a significant proportion of femicides are motivated by a combination of sex and racially motivated hatred. These killings underscore how intersecting identities motivate hate, often facilitated by institutional and systemic misogyny, including police, which also impacts Black women and other racialized and marginalized groups.

And then there are the many other forms of everyday sexism that occur, often including violence and hate, particularly against women in public life.

So why is violence against women and girls motivated by hate rarely treated as such, despite our legislation providing the mechanisms to do so?

The report pending from British Columbia and the recently announced national Task Force on Hate Crime can help begin to answer this question.

Until then, violence against women and girls remains marginalized in Canada’s hate crime framework, just as their experiences of male violence are marginalized, normalized and minimized in society.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Myrna Dawson, University of Guelph.

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Myrna Dawson received funding from the BC Office of Human Rights Commissioner to examine gender-based violence as a form of hate (and hate crime).

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